For quite some time, the incredible gardens at the Mauritzfontein stud farm in the Karoo have been under the radar. But Mauritzfontein: The Story of a Karoo Garden (Africa Press), a stunning new book on its history and recent reinvigoration, has put these gardens back on the map.
About six years ago, landscaper and horticulturalist Arthur Mennigke was asked to restore and rejuvenate the remarkable oasis at Mauritzfontein and bring it in line with contemporary concerns.
His starting point was an already-remarkable location: Mauritzfontein is a stud farm outside Kimberley in the Nama Karoo, where racehorses are bred. It was established by Harry Oppenheimer in the late 1940s, and he brought in the legendary landscaper Joane Pim to create the 9ha garden there in the ’50s. It’s now run by his granddaughter Jessica Jell.
Pim’s brief, essentially, was to create an oasis in the desert, which, miraculously, she pulled off. The bright-emerald island that she created is a miracle of horticultural ingenuity and persistence. While it inevitably had a European-inflected aesthetic, the garden remains a pioneering example of South African gardening history, including rockeries and a succulent garden way ahead of their time. Part of Mennigke’s task was to restore aspects of Pim’s design, but his vision was to modernise it and add his own touch. “I specifically wanted to Africanise quite a Eurocentric garden,” he says. That included some stylistic changes as well as bringing its overall approach in line with current thinking about sustainability and ecology.
His interventions work within the historical framework of the original design. Some of it involved seeing through Pim’s vision — now that the trees are mature, they’ve created the potential for a woodland garden, which didn’t exist before. Another part involved reviving the succulent gardens, largely devoured by kudu. He felt the main garden to be somewhat isolated and at odds with its surroundings, however, and wanted it to have more of a sense of place. “My ethos has been to bring [aspects of] the desert back into the garden,” Mennigke says. He introduced features such as the naturalistic swathe of wild grasses that seems to “flow” through the garden like a river. In this way, he’s also given some contemporary international trends a local spin — creating meadows of veld grass.
He was amused, when researching Pim’s notes, to find how similar their experiences had been: trying to find out what would grow in the harsh conditions, facing the scepticism of friends and colleagues, and learning to work with nature.
“Even [now] I think, how the hell does anything manage to grow in this heat, this cold, the wind, the alkaline water?” Mennigke says. “It’s an ongoing experiment to see what actually thrives.”
Mennigke’s other main additions were the extensive cutting gardens on the site of Pim’s old nursery. They supply the kitchen and keep the house filled with fresh flowers. Here, the book crosses over into inspirational lifestyle territory with beautifully photographed recipes showcasing the spoils of the garden-to-table approach at Mauritzfontein.
Mauritzfontein: The Story of a Karoo Garden has the weight of a proper historical account of these incredible gardens with the inspirational character and visual allure of a coffee-table book. Like the gardens themselves, it’s the best of both worlds.
• Image photography credits: Charles Johnstone, Arthur Mennigke, Connall Oosterbroek, and Joag van Rooyen
• From the December edition of Wanted, 2020.